Photo subjects: the helicopter
“It’s said a half-inch is as good as a mile. It’s not true in battle. You might be lucky to be a half-inch from a battle, but it’s no less scary.” But what about a half-mile away? “Sitting at two-thousand feet above rice paddies, it was like a miniature R&R or vacation time.”
So was Charlie’s relationship with the helicopter in Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive-era of the Vietnam war was uniquely tailored for helicopter warfare, due to the Viet Cong’s lack of anti-aircraft systems. Things changed in the later years of the war, especially when the United States entered Laos; but during the years Charlie was stationed, the helicopter was king.
Charlie was no stranger to the helicopters of the US Army. When he was sent to shoot photos of various units doing their work, he would board a Huey, a mid-sized helicopter that served roles of gunship and transport. The aluminum angel would lift Charlie through silent skies over rice paddies and parched thickets of spiny bamboo, to his destination in the field.
“A lot of guys were scared of them. I’ve seen them crash and go down—just tumbling in the air, erratically, men and machine guns and ammo boxes and everything flying out of it, the chopper would crash and burn. I knew they were dangerous. But they didn’t feel as dangerous as the ground. We’d get up a couple thousand feet above the ground, and we were a pretty small target for small arms fire. The air was pretty safe. Being up there was like breathing air—cool air—that no one had breathed before. The doors were always wide open—or non-existent—air was thumping by, and the roar… The roar just blocked out sounds, made conversation pretty damn difficult, so people would just sit, quietly. You’ll see in my photos people just sitting cross-legged in the door of the chopper, riding along like a monk on a magic carpet. We’d be sitting in a slick [helicopter], just floating around in the universe with no particular thing to do—we just happened to be armed to the teeth. But eventually, we’d be called home to earth, and down we’d go.”
Charlie’s photo collection is permeated by images of helicopters and their passengers, these men on a few minutes R&R. They sit with somber and contemplative looks on their faces as they ride in safe, unused air to their destination. Or, maybe sometimes they were riding with relief as they traveled back to the camp from a day in the field.
“I hated to see them in the morning when they would take us out and dump us in some God-forsaken place; but I loved to see them a few days later when they came to get us in the evening.”
Riding on a slick out to the field was a chance for the smart soldier to get his bearings before hitting the earth. “If you studied the sun and watched which direction you flew out, and paid attention to the altitude and the terrain below, you could hit the ground with a pretty fair knowledge of the terrain. You could know where the rivers were, where the rice paddies were, where the dikes and the hedgerows were. Helicopters offered an important vantage point.”
There were other less relaxing times aboard a slick. “A couple times, we hit a hot LZ [landing zone], where we were taking fire. One day, I was in the lead ship, when we were coming into a mountaintop. The door gunner reached over, grabbed me by the helmet, and dragged me over to him and said ‘If we get anywhere near this damn mountaintop, you get the hell off this thing, ‘cuz we’re not staying.’ I crawled up there next to him; he had a big helmet on. I lifted his helmet up and said ‘You just get me within jumping distance, and I’m off of this tin-son-of-a-bitch, because I’m not heading out of here with it.’ It was just hazardous—those things are bullet magnets when they were near the ground.”
“I was in a helicopter two or three times, in a Chinook once and in a Huey a couple of times, when they were being shot through the belly. You can only see the tracer rounds as they come through—they look like little spears of neon.” The bullet holes in the belly and roof created spots of light that illuminated the smoke from the guns firing out the side of the ship. Charlie says that it looked “like a disco ball, as the chopper banked and swerved, the sunlight coming through the bullet holes danced around the smoke inside the chopper.”
“The first time I was in a chopper that was getting shot at, I lay down on the floor, scared. One of the guys said ‘Man, what the hell you doing? Get up! You’re making yourself a bigger target!’ A lot of guys would actually sit on their helmets or flak jackets as they rode in the chopper.”
Protect your butt—literally.
Despite the stress that was sometimes present aboard helicopters, they still offered respite for weary soldiers traveling throughout the country. “It was like being out of the war, even just for a few minutes. We had nothing to do except ride.”
In those relaxing moments of short vacation, Charlie created some of his best images. Soldiers riding quietly in peaceful resting moments. Smoky landscapes shot through the chopper’s door, with silhouettes of helmets and guns in the foreground. Nine-ship lifts (an nine-helicopter strong troop transport with one gunship escort) accelerating into the air, noses down, as they leave a tense group of explorers heading into unknown territory. Nine-ship lifts coming to earth, tails down, to retrieve a weary expedition. In Charlie’s world, the helicopter is an entity with a life of its own and a distinct personality.
Hueys leaving Phu Loi.